Caught between two worlds. Identity in Leslie Marmon Silko’s "Ceremony"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

17 Pages, Grade: 3,0



1. Introduction

2. The progress of Tayo and Rocky in Ceremony
2.1. Tayo - the culture hero
2.2. Rocky - the symbol of a changing generation

3. Characteristics of Tayo versus Rocky
3.1. The similarities between Tayo and Rocky
3.2. The distinctions between Tayo and Rocky

4. Identity in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony
4.1. Tayo’s search for Identity
4.2. Hybridity in Ceremony
4.3. Relational Identity in Ceremony

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In our life everybody asks himself: Who am I? The answers to that question generate everyone’s self-perception which will be always part of one’s identity. The latter is one of the major themes appealing in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and this seminar paper will focus on the two characters Tayo and Rocky. They show the problems occurring for persons that are “caught between two worlds”. Tayo feels ashamed of himself because of his white ancestry. His cousin Rocky, on the other hand, is a full-blood Indian, but does everything to be a part of the “white world”. Both are somehow caught in the middle because of living in-between.

The first part of the paper will focus on demonstrating the development of these two major characters in Ceremony. It is an important section because “[in] essence, the individual’s actions and character define his identity” (Jenlink & Townes 2009: 127). Therefore, to analyze Tayo’s and Rocky’s identity or search for it, one has to examine their life career and relations with other persons because “[…] a person’s identity is [also] influenced by others recognition of that identity […]” (Jenlink & Townes 2009: 127).

This seminar paper will also focus on the similarities and distinctions between the two mentioned characters and the topic identity including the associated term hybridity, for example. The reasons for the accurate analysis of Tayo’s and Rocky’s characteristics by comparison are their different philosophy of life and searching for identity. Living in a reservation unfolds a unique way of life which differs from the lifestyle of the White’s. Therefore, it creates further hurdles for Tayo and Rocky, but “[this] search for identity […] is a social as well as an individual problem. The kind of answers one gives to the question Who am I? depends in part upon how one answers the question What is this society? – and this world – in which we live” (Lynn 1999: 14)? One has to be able to define his position in the world. This is why this topic also represents a problem of today’s people. There are still humans that are caught between two worlds because they are of mixed descend and were unsuccessful in the search for the sense of belonging. The reasons are sometimes the same like 50 years ago.

2. The progress of Tayo and Rocky in Ceremony

2.1. Tayo - the culture hero

“Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony (1977) unfolds a half-breed’s search for identity amidst fragmented shards of his own tribalism, a way of life torn asunder by centuries of oppression” (Swan 1991: 39). There is talk of the protagonist called Tayo. He is a Native American of mixed descent[1] living in the Laguna Pueblo reservation who has been a prisoner of the Japanese during the World War II. “His efforts to finish the ceremony by correct action form the last half of the novel, just as the first half was composed of the events which made him sick” (Evasdaughter 1988: 84).

Silko illustrates Tayo’s recovery by first making him sick. At the beginning of the novel the protagonist is suffering from the so called disease “battle fatigue”. Stationed in a Veteran’s Hospital where he feels invisible and unable to communicate, he has dreams and memories[2] of the war which show that he is not only sick after the war, but he was it also during the war. In the Philippines he was ordered to shoot Japanese soldiers and he saw Josiah[3] among them. Despite of Rocky’s[4] explanations that it could not be possible because they were thousands of miles away from the reservation, Tayo remained unhinged.

Back in the reservation where his aunt Auntie[5] nurses him, Tayo is still sick, crying often and vomiting. Furthermore, it can be noticed that he has a guilt complex. He feels responsible for Rocky’s death because he did not bring him home safe like he has promised. Additionally, he blames himself for Josiah’s death since he left him alone with the cattle although he was supposed to be the one staying home and also for the drought because he had prayed the rain away in the jungle. Despite of his leisure-time activities with the other Indian veterans and Ku’oosh (traditional healer) attempts to heal him, his condition is not getting better. Because of Tayo’s displeasure of being part of the drinking rituals which cause violence and only make him sicker and the failure of returning to the old way[6], a different kind of ceremony is needed to heal the sickened spirit.

Robert[7], who was nice to Tayo and welcomed him home from the war, “[…] takes Tayo westward to the hills of Gallup for ministrations at the hands of a Navajo shaman, Betonie, whom Ku’oosh recommends to Grandma” (Swan 1991: 43).[8] In the first instance the half-breed seems to be skeptical of the unique medicine man, who is using non-traditional items, and “[he] thought about running again […]” (122), but the result of Betonie’s subsequently explanations[9] was that Tayo opened up to him. The hybrid stays with the healer and tells him more and more about his memories. After the second night they start the ceremony[10] and “Betonie explains to Tayo that he must watch for the right mountain, the right stars and the right woman before he will be able to finish the Ceremony” (Jahner 1979: 43).[11] Tayo has to become a hero[12], he starts the journey and sees than that the forecasting of Betonie comes true bit by bit.

During his quest he finds the woman who the medicine man has foreseen.[13] Her name is Ts’eh and she “[…] identifies herself with mountain and rock: “I’m a Montano. […] You can call me Ts’eh” (223). The word tse means “rock” in Navajo” (Olsen 2005: 182).

She is a sacred figure who helps him with the cattle, explains the nature to him and also teaches him about love. On one day during his journey he looks up at the sky and he notices that Old Betonie’s stars are there (see 178).

Tayo understands that the land is holy and he wants to renew the ritual relationship with the land. Therefore, he undergoes rituals like honoring the mountain lion[14] where he puts pollen into his imprints (see 196). After that event “Tayo finds the cattle and exorcises the guilt that has been haunting him” (Schein 1993: 22).[15] Furthermore, in the final moments of his journey, Tayo changes the ending of the story when he chooses not to kill Emo.[16] He was successful in not letting the “witchery” win and the half-breed feels finally healed and able to recollect and verbalize his stories.

Back in the reservation Tayo tells the people what he has learned. For the Laguna people it is important to not feel guilty for the loss of their land and not bear hatred against somebody. The acceptance of the change is essential for the healing and Tayo’s illness and ceremonial healing process made it clear. Despite of losing the land, the Laguna people still have the nature to use and they should love it and feel connected to it[17].

By the end of the novel Tayo’s image has changed, “[the] Culture Hero has safely returned home, and the rainclouds are freed to gather once more” (Swan 1991: 57). The people of the tribe know that they will be blessed again after hearing Tayo’s stories and knowing that he has met the mountain woman. Tayo became a hero because he saved his tribe. [18]

2.2. Rocky - the symbol of a changing generation

Rocky, Tayo’s cousin/foster brother, grows up on a reservation of Laguna Pueblo and he lives together with his mother Auntie, her husband Robert, his uncle Josiah and his grandmother. It is not exactly written down who is his father and it remains uncertain, but it is safe to say that his father is an Indian because Rocky is a full-blood Indian[19].

He is an individual who has made all attempts exit one culture to live in another. Rocky adopts white culture, “embraces the patriotism of his white peers[…]”, and also “displayes desires for material objects when he admires the army recruiter because “he’s got his own Government car to drive” (72)” (Bassett 2004: 37).

In the novel he is already dead, but there is still talk about him because of Tayo’s memories. This is where one can see his progress in his life and get all the information about him.

As a child he sometimes went hunting with his uncle Josiah and Tayo, but he had only a little knowledge about Indian traditions and was not interested in participating in ceremonies. Being more interested in the white culture, he works very hard during his school years. Rocky is confident of the things he learns in school and shows more and more an aversion to the science of the Indians.[20] Nevertheless, he represents the proud of the family because he is an A-student and a great football player, but despite of getting all the recognition of his mother, the full-blood Indian Rocky does not feel connected anymore with the Laguna tribe. He hangs around with white people and puts his trust in all of their beliefs. Rocky is the symbol of a changing generation. He wants to be a part of the white world and also wants all of the power this culture offers, but it is his worship of the white culture that leads to his death. Rocky fights for the US Army during the World War II in the Philippines and dies.

“In the last pages of the novel, Rocky appears most often paired with Josiah […]” (Bassett 2004: 38). He is part of Tayo’s memories and still somehow alive for him. “First presented as a naïve assimilationist, Rocky later becomes the spiritual brother of Tayo” (Bassett 2004: 35-36).

3. Characteristics of Tayo versus Rocky

“A person’s identity reflects the whole structure of her character, the traits that are central to her capacity for agency.” (Flanagan & Oksenberg Rorty 1997: 3). Therefore, to examine Tayo’s and Rocky’s identity carefully, it is important to analyze their characteristics. They are two characters caught between two worlds, but still unlike each other at the first glance. Thus, one has to illustrate the similarities and distinctions between Tayo and Rocky.

3.1. The similarities between Tayo and Rocky

At first view Tayo and Rocky seem to be very different persons, but there are some similarities that can be demonstrated. Although they are treated differently by Auntie[21] they share some things like the same room and same bed. Additionally, they gained some experiences altogether. They attended the same school, enlisted in the army and fought in the Philippines during World War II, and drank alcohol for the first time with Harley. They also went deer hunting and learned how to ride a horse in their leisure time together with their uncle Josiah. Another similarity can be demonstrated after the World War II. By Rocky’s death and the sickness of Tayo, who is haunted by guilt, the novel “[…] presents both Rocky and Tayo as two men destroyed by the war, the former physically and the latter spiritually” (Bassett 2004: 35).

Bassett (2004: 39) represents an interesting analysis in connection with Tayo’s healing process and it leads to another similarity between the half-breed and Rocky:

“Both Josiah and Rocky, although dead, are still “close” to Tayo because “he could feel the love they had for him” and his love was “their life.” In a remarkable turn, through the ceremony he has discovered, Tayo recuperates Rocky, a character associated with assimilation and Western materialism early in the novel, by reconciling him with the earth” (Bassett 2004: 39).

Therefore, another similarity between the two cousins is that both recover by the end of the novel and they are again connected to each other.

Tayo and Rocky, when alive, spent a lot of time with each other which formed their identity and created a strong bond between them, although they seem to be very different.


[1] Half Indian half White

[2] Even thinking about hunted deer causes pains. “[It] becomes a double torment to Tayo, as it evokes memories of his friendship with his dead brother, as well as a specific scene on “some nameless Pacific island,” when they discussed the deer in the moments before the Japanese attack that killed Rocky” (Karem 2001: 25).

[3] Tayo’s uncle. His mother gave him to Josiah when he was a young child because she was not able to take care for him. That is why his uncle became so important for Tayo. “For a young Laguna boy, the most important adult male model within his social domain is his mother’s brother (Uncle Josiah)” (Swan 1991: 40).

[4] Tayo’s cousin/foster brother. Rocky called him “brother” for the first time when they joined the army which caused that he allowed himself to be persuaded into going to the war.

[5] She raised Tayo although she did it not out of love. Auntie always separated Rocky and Tayo and made it clear that they were not bothers which led to Tayo’s sense of exclusion from his family.

[6] Ku’oosh could not get very far with his old ceremony and realized that this was not the help Tayo needed: “There are some things we can’t cure like we used to […] not since the white people came” (38).

[7] “Robert, Auntie’s husband, substitutes for Josiah. He assumes his brother-in-law’s “anawe” role when nephew Tayo returns from the Veteran’s Hospital after the war suffering from the illness the white doctors called “battle fatigue”” (Swan 1991: 43).

[8] Grandma is Tayo’s grandmother, who is already old and wise, and she gave a lot of good advices like bringing Tayo to medicine men.

[9] For example, Betonie explains that people “[…] think the ceremonies must be performed exactly as they have always been done […] [, but] the ceremonies have always been changing” (126). The world changed and thus, the ceremonies also had to change. This explains Betonie’s dictinction to other medicine men’s practices and he keeps on holding the ceremonies in his own way: “I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong” (126).

[10] They start with supplications and Tayo gets a cut across the top of his head.

[11] Betonie does not want to waste more time and says that it does not matter if they wait any longer because the ceremony is not finished. “”Remember these stars,” he said. “I’ve seen them and I’ve seen the spotted cattle; I’ve seen a mountain and I’ve seen a woman”” (152).

[12] “He moves from the social sphere to that of the sacred where he must, according to indigenous tenets, encounter the mentors requisite for his process of recovery. […] Tayo […] must become a hero” (Swan 1991: 45).

[13] Being guided by Betonie’s foretells Tayo finds her on his way to the Mount Taylor. The latter is connected to Spider Woman and her emergence (in Laguna Pueblo culture).

[14] Or honoring the Snake (he finds Ts’eh after that ritual.

[15] Tayo became a hunter and finding the cattle, which was his last connection to his beloved uncle Josiah, was an important occasion for the success of his quest.

[16] Tayo has to witness Emo’s horrid torture of Harley, who was the one that let him away. Emo and his colleagues Leroy and Pinkie wanted to see Tayo being unsuccessful with his ceremony.

[17] Betonie’s opinion is that the land does not belong to the Whites, especially if they do not feel connected to it. Stealing the land to gain more power and having the papers that the land is theirs does not mean that they really possess it. “They only fool themselves when they think it is theirs. The deed and papers don’t mean anything. It is the people who belong to the mountain” (128).

[18] And finally, the drought ended.

[19] “Scholars suggest that it is fairly normal for West Indian women to have their first children out of wedlock or to have children with different fathers […]” (Dreby 2010: 148).

[20] Rocky was always critical of Indian knowledge: “After their first year of boarding school in Albuquerque, Tayo saw how Rocky deliberately avoided the old-time ways. Old Grandma shook her head at him, but he called it superstition, and he opened his books to show her “ (51).

[21] This is caused by the fact that Rocky is the object of pride and Tayo the object of shame. “Auntie had always been careful that Rocky didn’t call Tayo “brother,” and when other people mistakenly called them brothers, she was quick to correct the error” (65). Nevertheless, she never asked Rocky to go with her to the church, so that he (like Tayo) was not baptized.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Caught between two worlds. Identity in Leslie Marmon Silko’s "Ceremony"
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Worldly and Imaginary Spaces in American Transcultural Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Identity, Ceremony, Silko, Leslie Marmon Silko
Quote paper
MA Daniel Schroeder (Author), 2012, Caught between two worlds. Identity in Leslie Marmon Silko’s "Ceremony", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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